Originally published in EA Worldview Saturday, November 27, 2010
Elizabeth Iskander analyses for EA:
Fresh protests by Egypt’s largest Christian community the Copts indicate a new phase in communal tensions that have risen steadily throughout 2010. The latest demonstrations, which have so far led to one dead and many injured, began on 24 November in the Giza area of Cairo when permission to construct a church was refused. In Egypt, a licence issued by the government is needed to repair an existing church or build a new one, whereas there is no such requirement for mosques. Such licences, if issued at all, can take a considerable time to obtain, and the conditions have church-building a major flashpoint for violence.
Until now, the pattern of violence was characterised by attacks on buildings used as a place of Christian worship without obtaining a licence. Wednesday’s Coptic protests and the reaction of Pope Shenouda to them indicate both an escalation in Egypt’s sectarian problem and also a breakdown in the relationship between the Church and the State, which was stable until recently.
Hosni Mubarak had become accustomed to the unflinching support of Pope Shenouda, who directly endorsed the President in 2005. Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hammady in Upper Egypt has even suggested that Mubarak’s leadership fulfils a biblical prophecy.
Earlier this year the Church leadership clearly gave its support to Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and heir-apparent. Anba Beshoy, the Coptic Church’s spokesman, publicly stated that Gamal is “a decent person who loves Copts”. Then, after the dramatic entry of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei into Egyptian politics in February and the establishment of the Initiative for Change, the Church reiterated its support for the National Democratic Party (NDP) and publically snubbed ElBaradei’s campaign
In return for its public support of the government, for securing the Coptic vote for the NDP and mediating Muslim-Coptic tensions, the Church expects the State’s support and preferential treatment. It also expects to have authority over its internal affairs. This summer, the State’s support for Pope Shenouda in his efforts to draft a new personal status law for non-Muslims and its return to the Church of Camilia Shehata, a Coptic priest’s wife who alllegedly converted to Islam, indicated that the alliance was intact.
However, Shehata’s declaration that she remains a Christian sparked unprecedented protests by Egyptian Muslims against the Church and the Coptic patriarch. The situation became increasingly unstable when Anba Beshoy made controversial statements about the Qur’an and the place of Muslims in Egypt. This added to the anger already expressed by demonstrators calling for Shehata to be released and permitted to practise Islam freely.
The State’s anger with the Church, as well as its concern about a backlash, was manifest when there was no intervention to end Muslim protests in September. A second sign of the wavering relationship came when the NDP released its list of candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, as not all of the Church’s recommended candidates were on the slate.
In turn, the Church broke tradition and praised the recent US report on religious freedom in Egypt. As a rule, this annual statement is dismissed by the Church, which is often the most vocal critic of foreign claims of discrimination against Copts, claiming they are merely a conspiracy to weaken Egyptian national unity. Now Pope Shenouda underlined the change of stance when he personally called for the State not to use violence against the Coptic protesters because, “violence only begets more violence”.
Despite the history of cooperation between President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda, tension between the Church and State is not new. During Anwar al-Sadat’s presidency, there was a series of clashes between Muslims and Copts. Incidents such as al-Khanka and al-Zawiya al-Hamra, in 1972 and 1981 respectively, left Copts and Muslims dead and injured. In both incidents, the issue of church building was the major catalyst for violence. The President’s relations with Pope Shenouda were hostile and the confrontation between them only ended with Shenouda’s internal exile and Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
Church building has remained a possible flashpoint between 1981 and last week, but Coptic reactions had been muted as Pope Shenouda pursued a pragmatic policy of cooperation with the State. Now a changed environment, beyond anger at inequalities over places of worship, is emerging: this is a political rivalry which is damaging the Church-State relationship and perhaps laying the ground for further communal violence.